x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

UN sets sights on fresh Syria talks from February 10

UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi says he he sees common ground between regime and opposition as peace talks end without any tangible result.

The Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Muallem speaks after peace talks in Geneva ended on Friday. Martial Trezzini / EPA
The Syrian foreign minister Walid Al Muallem speaks after peace talks in Geneva ended on Friday. Martial Trezzini / EPA

The National staff

Syrian peace talks in Geneva ended without any tangible results yesterday, but the UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said he hoped to bring the regime and opposition delegates back to the negotiating table later this month.

“I suggested we resume, on the basis of an agreed agenda, on February 10,” Mr Brahimi said after a week of closed-door negotiations wrapped up.

“The delegation of the opposition agreed to this date. That of the government said they needed to consult with Damascus first.”

Countries backing the Syrian opposition blamed the government of President Bashar Al Assad for the failure to make headway.

The Friends of Syria, an alliance of mainly western and Gulf Arab countries, met in Geneva shortly after the talks ended and called on Mr Al Assad not to obstruct further rounds of talks.

“The regime is responsible for the lack of real progress in the first round of negotiations. It must not further obstruct substantial negotiations and it must engage constructively in the second round of negotiations,” the group said.

Mr Brahimi admitted that progress had been “very slow indeed” but said the two sides had “engaged in an acceptable manner”.

“This is a very modest beginning, but it is a beginning on which we can build,” he said.

“The gaps between the sides remain wide. There is no use pretending otherwise. Nevertheless, during our discussions, I observed a little bit of common ground, perhaps more than the two sides realise or recognise.”

The opposition has insisted that the talks focus on seting up a transitional government in Syria that does not include Mr Al Assad, the regime is adamant that he will not cede power except through elections, and that the real issue is dealing with “terrorists”, as it describes Syrian rebels fighters.

Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Al Muallem, blamed the lack of progress at the talks on a “lack of maturity and seriousness” on the part of the opposition delegation, which he claimed had sought to “implode” the peace negotiations.

“They acted as if we had wanted to come here for one hour and hand over everything to them. It’s indicative of the illusions that they are living under,” he said .

Mr Al Muallem said president Al Assad and his government would first read the delegation’s report, then make a decision on the next step, with the negotiators returning if the public demanded it.

The leader of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC), Ahmad Jarba accused the regime of showing no “serious engagement” during the talks.

“We cannot talk about serious engagement from Assad’s representatives,” he said after the closed-door negotiations ended.

As the foes sought to breach the gaping chasm between them, nearly 1,900 people perished since the start of the talks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Friday in a stark reminder of the situation on the ground.

It took months of pressure from Syria’s ally Russia, and Washington, which backs the opposition, to bring the two sides together.

The opposition spokesman Louay Safi said on Friday that the regime had been forced to negotiate.

“The fact that the regime has been forced to come to Geneva -- this is the result of the fighting of the Syrian people,” Mr Safi said.

Syria’s conflict erupted in March 2011 after a regime crackdown on peaceful Arab Spring-inspired protests.

It morphed into a sectarian-tinged civil war which has to date claimed over 130,000 lives and driven millions from their homes, sparking a devastating humanitarian crisis.

“The regime started this armed conflict. The protests were peaceful, had the regime responded peacefully there would have been no conflict,” Mr Safi said.

Mr Brahimi said that despite a difficult start, the talks had got down to specifics.

“This week we started to discuss the specific areas of the cessation of violence in all its forms, including the fight against terrorism, and the transitional governing body exercising full executive powers.”

He noted that the talks ended with no breakthrough in addressing the desperate humanitarian situation in the country.

He earlier said he was “very, very disappointed” that no progress had been made towards fulfilling the only tangible promise to emerge from the talks: the regime’s promise to allow women and children safe passage from rebel-held areas of Homs that have been besieged since June 2012.

The Syrian regime kept a combative tone as the talks with the SNC delegation drew to a close.

“Neither in this round, nor in the next will they obtain any concessions from the Syrian delegation,” Syria’s information minister Omran Al Zohbi told pro-regime demonstrators outside the UN’s European headquarters in Geneva where the talks were held.

“They will not get through politics what they couldn’t get through force,” Mr Al Zohbi insisted, as the applauding 250-strong crowd waved a huge Syrian flag and brandished pictures of Mr Al Assad.

Mr Al Zohbi said his no surrender message was not only for the rebels, whom he accused of “terrorism”, but also for their allies in Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and anti-Assad groups in Lebanon.

Asked about Mr Al Zohbi’s remarks, the Mr Brahimi quipped: “I hope he’ll change his mind!”

* With reporting by Agence France-Presse, Reuters and Asociated Press